Garlands, the skulls of sacrificed cows and sacrificial objects – jug, bowl and incense stand – are reminders of festivals, animal slaughter and cultic rites in honour of the gods. These things adorned Greek temple friezes and altars from the 3rd century BCE onwards. At the start of the Roman Empire, stone sarcophagi in Rome also started being decorated with sacrificial symbols to lend them a sacred aura. The large sarcophagus became known to draughtsmen of antiquities as long ago as the 15th and 16th century CE and was on display until 1885 in the gardens of the Palazzo Caffareilli on the Capitoline in Rome. It was produced around 40 BCE in a metropolitan workshop. The deceased man must have been a rich noble. The choice of this form of inhumation was not typical at the time and would only become so later. In the upper part of the chest a recess was fashioned to hold the lid, which in this case is flat as the thin walls would not have been able to support a lid in the shape of a roof, as seen on other sarcophagi. In the fashion of Greek sarcophagi, the chest is decorated on all sides. The long sides feature garlands attached to the horns of bulls’ heads by long ribbons. The garlands contain an abundance of fruits, branches and leaves. They emulate the garland frieze on the Ara Pacis, completed in 9 BCE. Unlike the richly layered garlands on the Ara Pacis, the bundles here are clearly laid out, their components distinct from one another, with flattened leaves and ears of corn. Above the garlands hang bowls and jugs to pour the sacrificial libations. By their ornamentation we can tell they emulate valuable repoussé and gilded silver vessels. The ribbons from the horns flutter in the spaces in between. They too are flatter than the more plastic design of the ribbons on the Ara Pacis. The short sides of the chest bear depictions of elaborately structured incense stands, placed between laurel trees as symbols of immortality. Incense stands such as these would have stood in exactly these positions, at the head and foot of the deceased during the laying out of the body. The workmanship shows great refinement and precision. The depiction of the bulls’ skull is anatomically exact, the details have been rendered with great care, as evidenced, for instance, in the small nails on which the jugs are hung. The framing mouldings and the decoration around the edges of the chest with a Lesbian cymatium and guilloche reinforce the impression of opulence, which would originally have been even greater when one considers that the chest was painted and perhaps gilded in parts. The chest’s thin walls were always in danger of collapsing. Cracks were secured with pegs perhaps still in antiquity, or some time later during transportation. At the end of the Second World War the sarcophagus was burnt in a blaze after being removed for safekeeping. We are fortunate that only a few fragments went missing as a result.


  • Title: The Caffarelli Sarcophagus
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: -40
  • Location: Rome
  • Physical Dimensions: w245 cm
  • Type: Sarcophagus
  • Medium: Carrara marble
  • Inv.-No.: Sk 843a
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-814319
  • External link: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Verlag Philipp von Zabern / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Huberta Heres || Photo: © b p k - || Photo Agency / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Johannes Laurentius
  • Collection: Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

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